Monday, September 20, 2010

Clutter and Dry


Photo courtesy Flickr

In January and June I attended two sessions of a conference exploring the reciprocal relationships between society and technology. No system is more responsive to technological change than a domestic one. I’ve been downsizing in place and have generated a fair amount of vacant space under the roof.

This morning I recalled the house of a friend from high school. The basement was empty enough to echo, and it was immaculate, with a freshly painted floor, taut lines for drying clothes, and a gleaming twin-tub washer in one corner. The mother of the family could well afford any facility she fancied. She chose the economy of low-tech. In this climate, clothes are dried indoors because if you try to dry them outdoors, they will mildew before they are wearable.

The electric dryer took Seattle basements by storm around 1951. It freed many cubic feet of space. It took a while for the change to take effect, but I have come to suspect that the dryer is the villain behind the insane amounts of clutter that infest nearly every domicile. It contracted the space needed to dry clothes to a few cubic feet and left whole rooms open to encroachment from cheaply produced ephemeral products that aren’t much more than inventory tapeworms. In Seattle, the basement drying area is also a valuable indoor play area for the kids to skate and horse around.

There’s a precious precept I learned from a management book written by twin Navy Seals. They discussed a costly lesson: do not let inventory determine the mission. The inventory they were talking about was a submarine that wasn’t doing much of anything at the time, and the outcome can be summed up simply as “I don’t want to talk about it”.

I don’t have a submarine, but I do have a basement and an attic. Empty space is tempting space. Real estate rhetoric holds storage dear, but houses aren’t for storage, they’re for living. Contemporary lines of supply are a blessing and a curse: anything one wants is available right away, but anything one wants is available right away.

I spent yesterday rationalizing hiking gear and building winter packs for emergency evacuation. Picking through a household that is meant to be carried on one’s back under trying circumstances is a good exercise in deciding whether something is worth bothering with.

The interplay of space and inventory never ends. Houses are living systems. Interests change, circumstances change (sometimes drastically and very fast), and space must be nimble. Manage inventory to that end, and one will never be burdened by the house that is meant to comfort and support.

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